The Duchess Assignment
|"The Duchess Assignment"|
|Episode no.||Season 01
|Directed by||David Elliott|
|Written by||Martin Crump|
|Cinematography by||Julien Lugrin|
|Editing by||Harry Ledger|
|Original air date||17 February 1966|
"The Duchess Assignment" is the 21st episode of the 1960s Supermarionation television series Thunderbirds. Written by Martin Crump and directed by David Elliott, it first aired in the United Kingdom on ATV Midlands on 17 February 1966.
Deborah, the Duchess of Royston, is in severe financial difficulty and is spotted gambling by an acquaintance, Lady Penelope (voiced by Sylvia Anderson), at a French casino. The roulette table has been rigged, and the corrupt croupiers make off with the Duchess' money and tiara. Parker (David Graham) engages in a gunfight with the casino owner, who makes a getaway in a car driven by one of the croupiers. Penelope and Parker give chase in FAB 1, but the criminals successfully evade them.
Having been forced to put Royston Castle up for sale, the Duchess now has only one valuable possession remaining: the "Portrait of a Gazelle", a painting by Braquasso. Penelope informs Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley), who has flown to England for the London Air Display, of the Duchess's problems. Keen to help, Jeff contacts his friend Wilbur Dandridge III, director of Gazelle Automations in New York City, with assurances of a prime candidate for the company's anticipated new logo. Although the Duchess is unwilling to sell the painting, she agrees to rent it to Dandridge for a six-month term for the same amount, and travels to the United States onboard Fireflash to supervise the hand-over personally.
Before the Duchess's arrival at New York Central Airport, Dandridge's chauffeur, Hendricks, is knocked unconscious by two criminals, Chandler and Brophy, who eavesdropped on Penelope and the Duchess in France and plan to acquire the Duchess's fee by kidnap and false representation. Posing as Hendricks, Brophy drives the unsuspecting Duchess to Dandridge's "country house" (a remote, derelict building), binding her to a chair in the basement. Before departing, he switches on a leaking gas supply. Chndler arrives at Gazelle Automations with the painting, introducing himself as the Duchess's representative. He is unaware that Penelope has been tracking the Duchess's movements from England via a homing device concealed inside a St Christopher brooch, and that Dandridge is expecting an impostor. When Dandridge holds him at gunpoint, Brophy surrenders, but in so doing throws the painting into the air, where it is grazed by Dandridge's bullet.
Penelope contacts Tracy Island to warn International Rescue that the Duchess is in danger. Dispatching Scott (Shane Rimmer) and Virgil (David Holliday) in Thunderbirds 1 and 2, Jeff instructs John (Ray Barrett) on Thunderbird 5 to monitor the Duchess's signal. As Scott and Virgil arrive at the danger zone, the gas in the basement ignites, and the Duchess passes out in the heat. Virgil transfers to the Mole and burrows underground; having penetrated the fire-consumed basement, he retrieves the Duchess. Activating the DOMO, Scott uses the Pod Vehicle's powerful supports to hold up a collapsing wall; eventually, it falls and crushes the basement during Virgil and the Duchess's ascent. Finding that the Duchess's signal has disappeared, Scott and the rest of the Tracy family worry that all is lost, but the Mole quickly re-surfaces, with neither Virgil nor the Duchess seriously injured.
The Duchess recovers at a hospital in England. Dandridge arrives with news that the "Portrait of a Gazelle" is irreparably damaged, but to the amazement of her visitors, the Duchess unscrews the handle of her umbrella to reveal the original painting rolled-up inside – the canvas that travelled to New York was a copy. Parker enters, announcing that reporters are offering substantial sums for the rights to the Duchess's life story and on top that Chandler has been arrested by the police and Brophy has been arrested by the FBI for kidnapping the Duchess and stealing her painting, the casino owner and his croupiers have been arrested by Interpol for fraud and the casino has been shut down. The Duchess, soon to become solvent again, wishes to go to a special place at the earliest opportunity: the casino.
It was initially planned that actress Christine Finn (the voice of Tin-Tin and Grandma Tracy) provide the voice of the Duchess (whom the voice cast nicknamed "The Old Boiler"). When Finn struggled to produce suitable tones at the dialogue recording session, the part was transferred to Sylvia Anderson, who also found it too great a challenge. It was at this point that Ray Barrett announced "Oh, sod this. Gerry, I'll play it", to which series co-producer Gerry Anderson exclaimed "What?" and puzzled looks went around the studio. The voice that Barrett affected was an impression of Dame Edith Evans (1888–1976), whose appearance was also the template for the likeness of the Supermarionation puppet.
The DOMO (Demolition and Object Moving Operator) is a revamp of the Excavator, which was originally built for the episode "Martian Invasion" and re-appears in "Cry Wolf". Derek Meddings, the director of special effects, expressed satisfaction with the scale model, judging it "practical-looking" and "very dramatic on-screen". The aircraft transporter that appears during the air show scene was one of the first designs that Mike Trim submitted for Thunderbirds. Virgil Tracy's abstract painting of Alan is used as background decoration in the scene set at the "Exhibition of 20th-Century Art". First seen in "Move – And You're Dead", the portrait was created by production designer Keith Wilson, who also contributed some of the other miniature artwork on display.
In an example of the effects of forced perspective, the episode includes the appearance of a human hand in the same frame as a scale puppet, a technique that was first used during the production of Fireball XL5: when Parker pulls a gun on the casino owner, the weapon is held by a member of the production staff wearing a suit sleeve. Other episodes containing shots of this type include "30 Minutes After Noon" and "The Man from MI.5".
"The Duchess Assignment" marks a rare occasion in the Supermarionation series in which a male puppet is seen dressed as a woman – the character in question appears during the art gallery scene. A similar case occurs in the later Anderson series Joe 90, for which the puppet of the supporting character Mrs Harris was originally sculpted as male. The disguised Hood puppet appears during the air show scene, standing near to Jeff. The puppet from "Vault of Death" that plays Lady Penelope's cook, Lil, can be seen sitting next to the Duchess at the casino, and again at the gallery. The William Dandridge puppet originally appeared as Warren Grafton in "Brink of Disaster".
Stephen La Rivière, writer of Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future, considers "The Duchess Assignment" to have an "enjoyable, quirky charm", praising such aspects as the sculpting of the Duchess puppet and praising the episode as "one of the most unusual episodes in the Anderson canon". Sylvia Anderson commends the originality of Martin Crump's script, and the integration of action sequences into a plot that was "far from futuristic". The Empire State Building is visible in an introductory stock shot of the New York skyline, indicating that the events of this episode predate those of "Terror in New York City" (in which the structure is destroyed).
Ray Barrett's voice acting is warmly remembered by fellow cast members, who could not control their laughter during the dialogue recording. Shane Rimmer remembers wondering what Barrett "had for breakfast", and speculates that "it must have been concrete or something". Matt Zimmerman described the recording session as "very funny" and comments, "how we got through that episode I'll never know. I never laughed so much in my life." Sylvia Anderson considered Barrett's voice "marvellously camp" and the recording session "quite hilarious". Following Barrett's death in 2009, Fanderson magazine published a "Top 10" list of characters that he voiced, with the Duchess of Royston ranked eighth.
Science-fiction writer John Peel, in his episode guide to Anderson television series, praises the technology of the Auto-Nurse seen during the closing hospital sequence, describing it as "almost a duplicate" of a similar device seen in the original Star Trek. The DOMO made a number of appearances in TV Century 21 comic strips: "Operation Earthquake", "The Hawaiian Lobster Menace" and "Project City". One of the only three Pod Vehicles to feature in Thunderbirds comics tie-ins, the name of the vehicle, unused in "The Duchess Assignment", was revealed in the 1966 "Thunderbirds Extra". John Marriott, in his book Thunderbirds Are Go!, praises the DOMO as "entertaining" and expresses disappointment that it did not appear in subsequent episodes.
- La Rivière 2009, p. 116.
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